Last week I took a look at the scouting side of things and where it can give you big benefits over the scouting side of things to help a team make better decisions on player evaluations. As noted last week, every organization has a scouting and a statistical department in their front office. Teams certainly rely on the departments in different ways, some relying far more heavily on one side than others, but everyone has both in their evaluation process in todays game.
The statistical and scouting side of things have been blending together over the past 10 years. With outfits like Baseball Info Solutions and other big data mining outfits that began by watching video and charting every pitch and play by hand and in turn selling the information to teams, the teams have been able to turn scouting data into analytical data. An advanced scout for the big league team can go watch a team for a series or two and try to pick up tendencies, but with all of the big data out there now, teams can pick up on tendencies not only based on a small sample of a few games but over careers, years, months or weeks. It will give a more complete and accurate picture of tendencies than what a scouting based approach would.
We’ve all heard of the fabled “five-tool player”, but in reality there are very few true five-tool players in baseball. I know that I’m guilty of it, but one of the things that happen is falling in love with a player who has a big skillset but may not be able to use it frequently and overlooking a player who doesn’t jump off of the page in any area, but is good in more than a few areas. Guys who may never have been given a chance in the past are getting opportunities today because the stats are telling teams that maybe players like him have more value than used to be believed.
Another area where statistical analysis has really helped is in figuring out minor league players and their relative ability to step into the Majors. When things used to rely on scouting more so than on a bit of scouting and a bit of statistical analysis we would somehow wind up with arguments over whether to keep Kurt Stillwell or Barry Larkin. One guy had a .703 OPS with no power at all in his three year career through the age of 20. Granted he was very young. The other guy had an .898 OPS in AAAÃ‚Â in his first full season. The guy that hit went on to be a Hall of Famer. Stillwell had a solid career with six full seasons and parts of three others. The Reds made the right decision, but there should have never even been a debate. It was very clear with the use of statistical analysis who was very likely to be the better option.
Likewise, we can look back at former top prospects like Delmon Young, Corey Patterson and even our own Brandon Larson, who hit very well in the minor leagues but struggled in the Majors to replicate that success or come close to living up to the lofty standards of the prospect-value they were perceived to have. All suffered from the same problem and it was one that the scouting side never really saw because they were able to hit minor league pitching well enough to hide it. They all had terrible strikeout-to-walk ratios. We’ve come to learn that being able to walk, or at least having a good strikeout-to-walk ratio is a very important thing for a hitters ability to be productive. That wasn’t always the case. Patterson was ranked as the #16, #3 and #2 prospect in all of baseball in his three years he spent in the minor leagues. He drew 99 total walks in three years while striking out 265 times. He was young for the levels he played at, but his aggressive nature never allowed him to get the most from his hitting tools. Delmon Young ranked as the #3, #3, #1 and #3 prospect in all of baseball in his minor league career. Once he left Low-A he drew a total of 44 walks in 974 plate appearances while striking out 164 times. Also young for his levels played at, but he too was unable to tone down the aggressive nature of his plate approach and has never turned into the big league hitter he once was expected to be. Brandon Larson and many others have been victim to the same overlooked issue by scouts who saw all of the tools on display in the minor leagues and even some good numbers that jumped out at you.
I hesitate to bring it up because I may never be allowed to write on the site again, but better statistical analysis could have prevented the signing of an Eric Milton. Signing a home run prone pitcher to come and pitch in an incredibly home run friendly park was never going to work out and of course, it didn’t. It blew up worse than anyone probably expected it to.
While scouts and front offices have been aware of how parks effect players, being able to figure out just how much has been a rather inexact science and a lot of guesswork in the past. With the advancement in statistical analysis we can get a much better idea of exactly how much where a guy plays his 162 games effect the outcome and how a player may transition from one place to another. Some places are more suited for certain players. Yankee Stadium is suited for guys who use right and right-center as there is an extremely short porch in those areas. Fenway is great for hitters who go to left field with even moderate power as the green monster turns easy outs in most parks into doubles off of the wall. Even in the Reds own farm system the park in Pensacola plays out in a very strange manner. The ball absolutely flies out to left and left-center field. Hitting the ball to right or right-center field makes for easy outs though as the ball simply doesn’t travel there because of wind patterns.
Perhaps the two biggest things we’ve seen though have come as a result of Major League Baseball itself. Back in the 2007 season they began to implement the Pitch F/X system with the help from Sportsvision to track the pitch from the release of the pitchers hand to the plate. It changed the game even though it took a few years. The system, initially set up just to provide a way for fans to follow the game with cool details online who couldn’t watch, tracks the pitches, their movement, the velocity and a “close enough” to accurate hit location for balls put in play (these, as of this past year, are still manually input by a person watching the game live – but that will change next year as the game moves to the Trackman system which uses radar to track everything and is flat out incredible).
With all of this data teams are able to get incredibly accurate scouting reports on pitchers, hitters, catchers abilities to “frame” a pitch that turns a ball into a called strike, or turns what should be a strike into a ball and even an umpires strikezone. The amount of information is nearly endless and it makes the time between a team finding a weakness of a player and exploiting it much quicker than it used to be.
That adjustment period, in my opinion and in that of some MLB coaches have drastically altered the game of baseball. Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson talked about it in an interview during the season, and unfortunately I can’t find the article with the quote but it basically was this: “With all of the information out there now, pitchers and defenses can adjust to a hitter in a matter of one game to the next and know their exact weakness and how to exploit it. For a hitter to fix that problem it may take them months or working on a daily basis to fix their swing if they are even able to fix it at all.”
A good example is seeing the shift taking over baseball. When a hitter pulls the ball, in theory at least, it should be to their power side and thus the ball should be hit harder than when they go the other way. It’s been that way since the beginning of baseball. Guys can open their hips and get more behind the swing. So when a guy pulls the ball, their batting average on balls in play should be higher than their overall BABIP. Well, just five years ago left handers, who see the majority of the shifts since guys can make the throw from short right field to first base but not from short left field to first base (which is why I believe MLB should outlaw the shift since it unfairly allows left handed hitters to be punished in a way that you simply can’t punish right handed hitters), have watched the BABIP on pulled pitches drop over 50 points and it can almost all be tied to the ability to look at the data and find out exactly where to position players on the field to give them the best opportunity to turn a ball into an out as long as the pitcher can execute the proper pitch (inside, of course).
Between the pitchers having incredibly detailed scouting reports on exactly what pitches a guy can and can’t hit, and where he can’t hit them in a matter of seconds and the ability for defenses to line up almost exactly where a hitter typically hits a ball has really been a large reason why scoring has dropped off so drastically over the past few seasons. While the pitchers are certainly better in terms of their stuff (mainly because everyone is throwing a little bit harder for some reason), the advantage that big amounts of data are providing teams and players with likely has more to do with it.
The statistical analysis is more about finding out what a player has done rather than what a player is capable of doing. It is also helpful in telling us important things that could be overlooked on the scouting side of things,such as the plate discipline issue that was discussed above that was overlooked for a long period of time. With the amount of information we have readily available statistical analysis can help give us a more clear picture of what some scouting information used to provide because we now have so much more of that kind of information to view.
Teams continue to evolve into front offices that are using both scouting and stats as much as possible and it has made teams smarter, players better and fans more understanding than they ever used to be. Teams are still out there making mistakes as they try to compete with the rest of the league, but every team is now doing a better job because of how they are using more and better tools together to get the job done.